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March 26, 2009

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Never far from my thoughts since making the big announcement official last week and after reading through Snook’s announcement from a couple days ago, I realized I still have a bit more to say about why I made the decision to shake things up. If nothing else, to clarify how this all came about.

Identity Crisis

A while back we received a RFP for a project that would have lasted six months to a year if not longer. It was complicated and well beyond my comfort zone. Ultimately we declined to respond but while reviewing the project specs I realized something that I felt had been staring me in the face for some time, something I just hadn’t seen until then — Wishingline had a major identity problem.

Although recognized primarily as designers by other designers (and developers), to the outside world, Wishingline (and me by extension) were developers or some sort of hybrid. Not what I had in mind. That project RFP and the resulting conversation with the client confirmed it.

Insert panic attack here.

After walking home that night and mulling over the situation I had a pretty good idea where that perception problem came from. It turned out to be partially, if not entirely my own doing. Looking back through some of the more technically minded entries in the notebook and our previous enterprise application work made it abundantly clear.

I’m a designer first and foremost but I like to tinker. I’m innately curious and have always liked to know how things work but I’m not a developer. Building or fixing things comes naturally and I’ve always found that characteristic allowed me to be sympathetic to developers, resulting in better decisions and ultimately better sites or applications.

Development experience also meant I could bring more to the table when working with clients. What I didn’t realize at the time though was the cost of that knowledge and what it ultimately meant in relation to the type of work that showed up on our doorstep.

My involvement in the development side of the web increased out of interest and necessity but also from the type of work that Wishingline was already involved in — a considerable amount of application design (Rails, Sproutcore, iPhone, embedded web widgets, etc), rarely from the commercial website part of the business.

At this point I have about zero interest in doing any more web app design work. Those are problems I’m just not interested in trying to solve now. It’s too easy to get caught up in the minutia and technical details which can quickly suck the life and momentum out a project.

For now I’m only interested in focusing my time and effort into things I can get behind 100%. To some extent that means getting back to my roots and focusing much more on design rather than mucking about in code or someone else’s app framework.

The Intangible Web

The intangibleness and the seeming repetitiveness of the web is something I’ve struggled with for some time, leaving me feeling like the web is just too much of the “same old, same old” to be really interesting. I know that’s not really true but constantly being handed the same basic problems to solve over and over or being pigeonholed into one design aesthetic hasn’t helped bend my opinion to the other side.

Anna, Ned and I talked about this quite a bit in the office — how we could make the web more interesting (for us at least) by introducing more tangible visual elements and interaction into our work without resorting to Flash. We looked at potentially building actual “set pieces” and working more with real objects that we’d photograph and use as building blocks for site designs. Unfortunately we didn’t get the opportunity to put this into practice, but I’m not done with that idea yet.

I come from a largely traditional design background: paste-up by hand, processing my own film, print (litho, screenprinting, letterpress, flexo) and the like. I’ve used more than my fair share of Letraset and Rubylith.

I’ve always been passionate about typography but being as focused on the web for as long as I have left many of my typographic senses dulled. I’ve been chipping away at that problem for a little while now but I need to step that up, if only for myself. It’s not that I’m sick of Lucida Grande, Verdana or Georgia… Ok, maybe a little.

I also miss working with my hands instead of being glued to a desk and computer screen — whether this means sketching or working with real materials (paper, ink, film, traditional photography, etc) instead of doing everything digitally in Photoshop. Analog is where it’s at. I made a record for crying out loud.

Personal Projects

Like Jon, internal projects at Wishingline have been constantly sidelined. It’s a problem when the client vs internal/personal work division is almost always 100/0, and one which has weighed heavily on my mind for a long, long time.

A perfect example is the main Wishingline site which hasn’t been significantly updated in nearly 5 years and in desperate need of attention. There’s also a big sketchbook of creative project ideas that’s been sitting on my desk untouched for nearly as long. Paying the bills is all well and good but without a striking proper balance between client work and personal projects it can be difficult to stay engaged.

Simply put, a big part of why I started Wishingline in the first place, aside from the flexibility of being choosey about the for-hire projects I would work on, was to be free to work on these “fun” projects; to dedicate a portion of my day to reading, writing and doing whatever would allow me to stay creative, motivated and engaged so that the “work” projects don’t somehow become a burden. That hasn’t worked out quite the way it should have and in the end I’m the only one who can do something about it — and so I am.

Taking Back The Reins

Time is one of the few (only?) finite variables in life and the reality for me was that I didn’t want to look back and feel like I wasted an opportunity by trying to “tough it out” in a situation that wasn’t working. I have a wife and a young daughter and need to consider how what I do for a living affects those relationships too.

I’ve had the opportunity to work on a wide variety of projects with some smart people — many I’ve enjoyed for one reason or another, but there’s also been some real duds. There’s been times where I found myself severely overbooked and overwhelmed too. Sometimes it was my fault but other times it was entirely out of my control. Stress is ok in small doses but long-term, relentless stress is really, really bad even if you’re getting paid for the overtime. Trust me.

Perhaps naively, I almost always put client work first. That proved to be wrong. It’s important but only if it’s the right work or if it doesn’t occupy every waking moment of your life, in the office or out. Maybe that sounds selfish but personally I don’t think so. I’m honestly too close to really be objective anyway.

Let’s be totally clear — I’m not saying I’m done with the web or design in general. Far from it, but I need to redefine my place in it by better understanding what I want from it and by hopefully contributing something back to it that I (and others) think is truly interesting, engaging and worthwhile.

More on exactly what that means soon.

So say you…

They sound like some wise words, Scott. I think more of us should take the time to step back from our current situation and really assess what we want to do with our lives. I wish you the very best, and I’m sure you’ll do well, regardless of the path you take!

(On an unrelated note, it was great to meet you at SXSW, albeit briefly. I’m gutted we didn’t get a chance to chat again so that I could pick up the record!)

Elliot Jay Stocks Elliot Jay Stocks March 26, 2009

I can see where you’re coming from in preferring web design and other creative endeavours over applications. I’m obviously wired the other way because I feel like with applications I am actually much more comfortable and creatively satisfied.

Perhaps this is because you’re more of a true artist (sketching, painting, music photography, etc.) than I am? Who knows.

What I do know is that application design is very limited when it comes to personal expression because you’re bound by so many constraints, rules and dependencies. Sometimes that can lead to a lot of frustration - been there countless times - but it can also result in some really fun work.

Geof Harries Geof Harries March 27, 2009

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